Linked Verse merges audio and visual in debut performance

Dec. 24, 2013, 12:51 a.m.

On Dec. 7, Bing Concert Hall held the grand premiere of Linked Verse, a 3-D  multimedia concert that combined graphics and music in a strange yet compelling way.

Composed and produced by Stanford composer Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, an associate professor of composition, and the New York-based digital media collective OpenEndedGroup, Linked Verse debuted to a packed house.

The piece began with the sudden sounds of the violin and shō, an ancient mouth organ that was customarily used in the gagaku court orchestra in ancient Japan, as audience members looked onto the stage in anticipation of when the visual show would begin.

Ten or so minutes later, the multimedia images began appearing before us after an unanticipated delay. The musicians were never told directly to stop playing their instruments because of technical difficulties; rather they continued playing, unaware that the scheduled pictures were not being projected behind them.

The first graphic portrayed a dark place where things were difficult to see, and one audience member wondered if this scene was intended to make us feel like we were drowning. Paul Kaiser, a digital artist with the OpenEndedGroup, said that this first scene was actually intended to put a trance of sorts on the audience.

According to Kapuscinski, the pictures used for the visuals were taken in Tokyo and Kyoto, and San Francisco and New York, their U.S. equivalents. There was no order to the them and in some, figures actually moved  gradually from one place to another. For example, one series of graphics shows a group of children leaping from stone to stone as they cross a body of water while another shows a cat rising from its rest, hunching its back, and then looking at the audience with sharp, golden-yellow eyes.

To appreciate Linked Verse, one needed to come into the performance with an open mind and some background knowledge of the show’s purpose. I had done neither and thus was displeased. Instead of focusing on the technological expertise, I focused on the melodies that were repeated time and again for apparently no reason; personally, I felt over-stimulated by both the heavy, grabbing music and intensely detailed 3-D images.

Although I was hoping for some sort of linear plot of organization, I found none. However, after the show, Kaiser explained that Linked Verse is intended to be like renga, a form of Japanese poetry where several poets independently write lines for one poem.

Despite my criticisms, I came to admire how the team managed to synchronize the music and the pictures, a difficult task.

“The traditional timing of this piece is nonexistent. We had a very elaborate score that had our parts with some kind of a clock,” said Maya Beiser, a cellist who performed with the OpenEndedGroup.

Marc Downie, a digital artist with the group, gave a more detailed explanation:

“We developed a system where the score and timing would be delivered just in time to these iPads,” Downie said. “Those were all synchronized with video time and audio time.”

If you are among or like the many in Silicon Valley who express great interest in different applications of technology, this show is for you. The attempt to marry audio to visual is difficult enough, but to do so with a cello, shō and an unusual combination of graphics is extremely daring.

Indeed, this unique approach challenged and encouraged Besier and Ko Ishikawa, the musician who played the shō, to push themselves out of their comfort zones as artists.

“I’ve worked a lot with technology but this is really a first experience for me working in that way,” Beiser said. “It’s quite fantastic because what it does is allow the natural way to evolve during the performance.”

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